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3 September 2021

The Tories’ vaccine poll bounce is fading but Labour isn’t gaining

The gap between disapproval of Boris Johnson and support for Labour is at the highest level since Keir Starmer became leader.

By Ben Walker

UK public opinion on Boris Johnson has rarely stayed static. In fact, it’s varied wildly. Since ascending to the top job in 2019, Johnson has scored eye-watering levels of both public approval and disapproval. And on each of those occasions, commentators have been quick to judge every downward turn as the beginning of the end, or perhaps even something fatal, to only be proved wrong. 

The Prime Minister and his party have benefited electorally from the Covid-19 crisis: public sympathy and support rose in the early months of lockdown and have remained at an elevated level since. But recent months suggest two reasons why such clemency may be drawing to a close. The first is that the vaccine programme (and the polling bounce associated with it) is now nearing an end. The second is that non-Covid issues are increasingly prominent on the airwaves. According to Ipsos Mori, issues and events unrelated to the pandemic now command more public attention than at any other point during the crisis.

40 per cent still rank Covid-19 as the most important issue facing Britain today, but this figure is the lowest it’s been since before lockdown. Is the protection that the “vaccine bounce” offered to Johnson now fading? It appears so. 

Britain Elects number crunching finds that Johnson commands the disapproval of nearly 49 per cent of Britons and the approval of below 37 per cent (around one in ten are unsure). 

These numbers are close to the highest level of disapproval in Johnson since the Conservative Party’s general election victory in 2019. Earlier heights came last autumn when public dissatisfaction with Johnson’s haphazard lockdown policy rose.

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Public disapproval of Boris Johnson is rising 
Popularity of the Prime Minister, Britain Elects poll tracker

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But while Johnson is increasingly unpopular, the Labour Party isn’t reaping the benefits. Although public negativity towards the Prime Minister has risen by five points since July, support for Labour has shot up by… well, it hasn’t actually. In that same period of time, it fell from 33.9 per cent to 33.8 per cent.

The gap between voters unhappy with Johnson and those supporting Labour is the highest since Keir Starmer became Labour leader
Data taken from the Britain Elects poll tracker

The gap between disapproval of Johnson and support for Labour is at its highest level since Keir Starmer became leader. The share of voters disenchanted with the Prime Minister is now 45 per cent higher than the share of voters enamoured with Labour.

Among those voters with an opinion, Starmer is more disliked than liked but he is essentially unknown to three in ten. This is double the level recorded by Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn after they had, respectively, served 17 months as leader, and Starmer’s advocates will emphasise that he still has time to make a good first impression on this group. 

But rising dissatisfaction suggests voters are now prepared to hear the other side and to stop asserting that the opposition shouldn’t play politics during a pandemic. Increasing levels of uncertainty among those who voted Tory at the 2019 general election suggests an opportunity here. The vaccine bounce is coming to an end and voters are open to alternatives. The time for Starmer to set out his stall is now. 

[See also: Labour’s lost future: the inside story of a 20-year collapse]